Don’t Look Up — Apocalypse Now (well, in a few months)
I happened to catch the #1 movie on Netflix 𝘋𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘜𝘱 yesterday. It is a satire by Adam McKay who gave us the wonderful and relevant comedy 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘪𝘨 𝘚𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘵. Within the short time it was released, the film garnered substantial buzz and critical acclaim and I personally loved it though at times it was a little on-the-nose. 𝘋𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘜𝘱 is a doomsday story of an impending comet strike in the tradition of apocalypse movies such as 𝘈𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘦𝘥𝘥𝘰𝘯 and 𝘋𝘦𝘦𝘱 𝘐𝘮𝘱𝘢𝘤𝘵, but instead of inspiring heroes, the characters are… well, representative of our current political/socio-economic climate. Unlike those movies, we don’t get decisive presidents or heroic pilots who go blazing into space to save the world, rather the disaster is politicized and vehement deniers, fake news enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists emerge who question whether there’s even a comet heading towards earth. Though comet discovery creates a stir, not in the way you’d expect a global crisis would. Everyone aligns their views/opinions based on their political ideologies rather than just looking up into the sky where the looming asteroid is plain to see with a naked eye. The movie’s title is a flat-earther type war cry of the political party that wants you to veer away from acknowledging the threat and doesn’t want you to look up in the sky. The movie is filled with identifiable real-life characters like an apathetic president, silicon valley tech billionaires, social media influencers, news pundits, social media obsessed citizens… in other words people who really became the shapers of our opinions in the current society. If this reminds you of the drama surrounding the COVID-19 virus, the vaccine and masks you are not wrong, the movie is an allegory to the pandemic that we currently find ourselves in.
The question that you might ponder while watching the movie is ‘how did it come to this? Why would science be subject to “belief”?’ If you think you are a rational human being you might say science is not subject to belief and it should be separated from politics much like the separation of church and state. We would be fooling ourselves if we think science is separate from politics, even scientists are human beings and the scientific community is subject to emotions, bias and myriad other problems that plague every other community. The very fact that most of the scientific funding comes from the government makes it political whether we like it or not. Ideally science should be apolitical but it is not, and it has never been. Let’s take for example a question like ‘is earth flat?’, if I ask you this question, the majority of you might say ‘of course not!’. If I press on ‘how do you know?’ You might point to some crude evidence about the way horizon looks or pictures from NASA’s website or even scientific papers, so in the end, you personally can’t prove it, so you are pointing me to others who you think are trustworthy, in effect your “knowledge” is based on … for lack of a better word … 𝘧𝘢𝘪𝘵𝘩. The textbooks and discussions on science are filled with these a priori assumptions. This applies to any science question like a coronavirus, physical laws, astronomy etc. Not many of us are actual scientists or even conducted the actual research, but we trust the researchers or the sources to tell us the truth. There’s another system that runs on 𝘧𝘢𝘪𝘵𝘩, religion. Religion relies on other sources who tell us about God, afterlife, good/evil, morality etc, none have direct knowledge of all the ethereal elements, rather indirect knowledge that is passed on from generations. Do we have video evidence about the acts of Rama or Krishna or Jesus or Prophet Muhammad? Were any of us present during those times? No. Both religion and science work based on 𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴. But unlike religion, science is based on empirical evidence and objectivity, so, any of the scientific theories or facts can be tested by anyone using the rigor of scientific method. Even a giant like Sir Isaac Newton harbored esoteric beliefs such as alchemy and even dabbled in the Occult. Why are these theories not discussed in the same breath as his 𝘗𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘪𝘢? Because his metaphysical studies didn’t follow the scientific method, that’s why. Nobel prize winning physicist and celebrated scientist Richard Feynman once said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. And this is our responsibility as scientists is to possess integrity, a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong.” It is a good thing that science questions itself and updates based on new evidence uncovered all the time.
In public policy there’s a concept called “Gibson’s law”, which states that “for every PhD there’s an equal and opposite PhD”. This maneuver is used by policy makers all the time to inject conflicting scientific opinion to court controversy and promote their agenda, however, many science-related public/social issues like climate change are still being “debated” because there’s always a scientist to be found who can offer a different conclusion you might like to align with, for political, social, economic, ideological reasons. So, based on who you choose to “trust”, you can always find a conclusion that might serve your purpose. This is why you’ll see someone like Trump saying bleach can cure the coronavirus or masks are unnecessary because he found some scientist who provided him with that piece of advice. This is why you’ll find shrewd politicians who might back abhorrent (in the eyes of the opposition) policies and conclude that “science supports this”. So, what’s the remedy? Consensus, peer review, replication. These are the pillars of the modern scientific method but most often than not these pillars shake and falter. Take the issue of coronavirus vaccinations: for every scientist who says vaccines are ineffective, if you can find 10 other scientists who back the efficacy of the vaccines, you can believe the consensus, that’s the best you got short of conducting your own experiments in a lab. Starting in the 90s, public policy issues like climate change or cigarette smoking, automotive safety were covered in the press based on the consensus of the scientific community and not presented along with the “other side’s opinion”, which is a welcome change but unfortunately, the internet blew all that away. With the propulsion of the internet based on community engagement, there’s enough voices on social media, YouTube and other websites that promote alternate “opinions” that unfortunately live on and influence large swaths of the populace, so nothing can escape the crucible of public opinion.
Politicization of science is not new, and is not going anywhere because science is intertwined with the society and the society is run by politicians. To sell good science, you need good politics, you need people who can project gravitas, trust, confidence and look good, someone like, say, Dr. Fauci. You have to admit if Dr. Fauci was not a likable figure, the coronavirus pandemic would’ve been much more disastrous because no one would listen to the public service messaging, he became the de facto face of the government response to the crisis. This is a key element highlighted in the movie where the character of Leonardo DiCaprio goes from an awkward 2nd-tier science geek to the epitome of calmness and stoicism that quietly assures the public of the government’s response and efforts.
In the film, a PhD student and her professor discover a comet that’s larger than the Chicxulub asteroid (the big one that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs) hurling towards earth and try to alert the authorities and the public of the inexorable doom so we can make plans to deflect the comet or take measures to save humanity. They are first met with skepticism and apathy, though their data is vindicated it ends up being a pyrrhic victory. To their horror, the inept administration, political appointees, their corporate cronies, are not taking it seriously, worse yet, trying to hatch egregious schemes to profit from the comet while humanity is on the brink of extinction. While the odious specter of the half-hearted government response unfolds, the media and social media are trying to enliven the scenario by inviting debate, opinion and even making movies about it. Since the comet’s arrival is a few months away, in the interregnum, our protagonists try to increase public awareness while the social order spirals towards the inevitable drain. 𝘋𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘜𝘱 cleverly juxtaposes the capitalist outlook and the liberal mindset to show us where the world is right now. Faced with a world-ending crisis, you’d think the UN would assiduously hammer out a plan to bring the world governments together, but alas the crisis can’t overcome the politics and each nation starts to pursue their own plan. The political games reminded me of the Bobiverse book series in which the author expertly portrays the political/religious divide in a world faced with nuclear winter where each country tries to launch its own space mission making space the new battlefield for supremacy.
The film received mixed reviews because of its heavy handedness, but it’s a satire, so I don’t know what the “critics” were expecting. The satire and the biting social commentary hit too close to home for many may be. Despite all that, the film is nominated for multiple awards including Best picture. I love the director Adam McKay’s comedies including 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘪𝘨 𝘚𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘵. He has the magic to bring together stalwarts of acting and make them disappear into the roles. He does it in 𝘋𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘜𝘱 again, where the screen is filled with talents like Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry and even Timothee Chalamet makes an appearance. Leonardo DiCaprio shines in the role of a small-time academic who gets catapulted onto the national stage. Jennifer Lawrence does a great job as the young idealistic PhD student who goes from being apoplectic about the lack of urgency in everyone to accepting the apocalypse while wearing a sardonic expression. Meryl Streep kills in the role of the impudent/apathetic president, essentially a female version of Trump complete with her son in an important White House position. Mark Rylance plays a silicon valley tech billionaire who embodies the spirit of Steve Jobs and the cockiness of Elon Musk. The music and cinematography are superb as the background score and the clever editing capture the essence of the story. Though the cast and crew are excellent, this is an Adam McKay film from start to finish. Once he decided on a global crisis, the current social climate wrote the screenplay by itself. That said, the writing and directing are captivating and ponderous while inducing chuckles. I would even compare this film to Kubrick’s 𝘋𝘳. 𝘚𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦 though it’s not filled with that many Peter Sellers :) or not that satirical. If anything, the film has too much symbolism that might get on your nerves, but only if you are trying to read too much into it. The film’s plot and each of its subplots touch upon familiar themes that we can identify with, but like any film, while watching the film how can people be such dopes but once we move away from the TV, we tend to engage in the exact same behavior in our online and in person interactions.
𝘋𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘜𝘱 is a film that you must watch even if not for its political satire and virtue signaling, but for its entertainment.
Written on Dec 31, 2021